Although Charles Goodyear was never a titan of industry or a billionaire entrepreneur like Andrew Carnegie or Cornelius Vanderbilt, he established the basis for a thriving industry at the heart of American manufacturing. With the invention of the vulcanization process of rubber, Goodyear made the production of rubber products financially and physically feasible for mass production. As a result, rubber is manufactured cheaply and abundantly all over the world for use in products with as diverse functions as tires, gloves, and garden hoses. The enormous influence of rubber over our daily lives in modern times is unquantifiable; this is all due, primarily, to one 19th century inventor. In truth, his story is an inspirational application of scientific principles to economic reality, with Goodyear’s frequent and often futile attempts to secure capital to apply his ideas to abundance in everyday life. However, only after his death would rubber become an everyday product and a massive industry of production. In 1898, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company took Goodyear’s name in commemoration of his achievement. Thus, even though Goodyear never applied his invention to the mass market as other great inventors did in 19th century America, it is still fair to say that Goodyear lived the American dream of experimenting with science to better mankind.
Goodyear was born in New Haven, Connecticut on December 29, 1800 to a well-respected, upper-class family. In 1814, the teenage Goodyear left for Philadelphia to learn about industry; returning in 1821, Goodyear entered into a partnership in his father’s business producing various metal-based products. Three years later, Goodyear married Clarissa Beecher and together they moved to Philadelphia where Goodyear, having left his father’s business, opened a general hardware store. He sold agricultural products imported from England. Within a few years, his business was thriving, and by 1829, he had amassed quite a bit of wealth. In 1829, however, his health declined due to a case of dyspepsia, a disease that attacks the digestive system and causes chronic pain in the upper abdomen. Around this time, his business failed as well; eventually, he was forced to close a number of stores. After his health returned, Goodyear undertook a project that would form the basis of his life’s work: the vulcanization process of rubber (Peirce).
In 1831, Goodyear began researching gum elastic. He experimented with the best method to make rubber; he produced tubes to show to the Roxbury Rubber Company, which was well-received by the company, which struggled to produce long-lasting rubber products. Goodyear continued to experiment with rubber production while back in New Haven, where he made shoes and other common consumer products with the hope of making a long-lasting quality product (Slack). Throughout this time, Goodyear struggled to make enduring rubber products, and he consequently strained with funding for his research. He continued his experiments and research with the last of his disposable capital; while working in New York, Goodyear began testing rubber shoes by walking. Ultimately, some of these experiments were successful, which gave Goodyear the confidence to continue working. After being left penniless in the panic of 1837, Goodyear’s rubber-producing factory in New York closed and he moved to Boston where he began working again with the Roxbury Rubber Company. Goodyear patented his method for making rubber in the 1840s, and sold the patent to the Providence Company of Rhode Island.
Scientifically, Goodyear’s success was remarkable, even though it nearly took his life and he made dire financial sacrifices to accomplish it. In 1838, while working with fellow inventor Nathaniel Hayward, Goodyear experimented by using sulfur in the rubber manufacturing process. According to some reports, Goodyear accidentally spilled rubber mixture on a hot stove, which charred most of the gum elastic material, but left some parts of the mixture perfectly treated. Using this natural rubber mixture and sulfur led to Goodyear’s patented vulcanization process of rubber production; this general process was refined throughout the rest of his life to produce the vulcanizing process. The vulcanizing process of rubber, as Goodyear developed it, depends on this sulfur infusion. However, as producers know today, using sulfur alone, without vulcanization accelerators, is extremely slow and inefficient. The use of vulcanization accelerators was implemented after Goodyear’s death (Young and Lovell).
Goodyear’s method for developing the first well-described vulcanization process was based primarily on chance, rather than solid chemical or scientific theory. Even though Goodyear followed the rough scientific method, Goodyear never provided a theoretical basis for his findings before applying for the patent that put his name on ownership of the process. Goodyear’s experiments with rubber were spurred by the inadequacies of natural rubber for widespread use; unprocessed rubber is sticky and malleable (Young and Lovell). Goodyear strove to make a product that would return to its original shape when deformed, and would not stick to every surface. These two primary characteristics of the vulcanized rubber Goodyear produced made his product widely usable in the public (Slack).
Although Goodyear felt confident he had discovered the secret of cheaply and efficiently producing mass quantities of rubber, he still faced the challenge of implementing this vision in the economic sense. As he tried to secure capital for the production of this material, efforts which most regarded to be futile, his family suffered from a lack of consistent income from their father. Even while some investors were interested in the product that Goodyear claimed he could produce, the economic climate of the time made it difficult to find a funding source that would survive long enough to implement those ideas. By 1844, Goodyear had perfected the rubber-production process and he sought out a patent. Once the patent was acquired, he used a small factory in Springfield, Massachusetts to try to demonstrate the effectiveness of his rubber production. Goodyear’s sale of the method for making rubber shoes to the Providence Company in Rhode Island gave him and his family some degree of financial security; however, the Springfield factory that demonstrate the efficacy of his rubber-production method never turned out to be successful. From 1852 until Goodyear’s death in 1860, he engaged in patent disputes in Europe over his products, which protected his rights to the proceeds from the new vulcanizing process. Nevertheless, Goodyear never achieved the kind of wealth and success one would expect from the father of modern rubber. The mass production and mass marketing of vulcanized rubber products would come at the turn of the 20th century, when Frank Seiberling founded the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company (Korman).
Although his financial success never came, Charles Goodyear today remains the epitome of the underappreciated scientist, selling his furniture to finance his research and experiment. In true fashion of the scientist, Goodyear worked so hard and so long with his corrosive chemicals that they almost killed him. Although he denied that his great discovery was an accident, his breakthrough is still widely considered to be the product of chance. The Reader’s Digest piece from January 1958 about Charles Goodyear states, “This discovery is often cited as one of history’s most celebrated ‘˜accidents.’ Goodyear stoutly denied that. Like Newton’s falling apple, he maintained, the hot stove incident held meaning only for the man ‘˜whose mind was prepared to draw an inference’. That meant, he added simply, the one who had “applied himself most perseveringly to the subject” (Reader’s Digest). Goodyear’s commitment to the rubber product manifested itself into a vision of a world filled with things made of rubber: everything from “banknotes, musical instruments, flags, jewelry, ship sails, even ships themselves” (Reader’s Digest). But when Goodyear died in 1860, he left $200,000 in debt, which was quickly made up in royalties from his patents. His son Charles Goodyear, Jr. applied business ingenuity to his father’s scientific ingenuity. But dying without money did not leave Charles Goodyear, Sr. bitter, as one might expect from a man who endeavored so enthusiastically to benefit mankind. He said wisely, “Life should not be estimated exclusively by the standard of dollars and cents. I am not disposed to complain that I have planted and others have gathered the fruits. A man has cause for regret only when he sows and no one reaps” (Reader’s Digest).
It is safe to say that Charles Goodyear’s reputation during his life was not tremendously favorable. His family, a well-respected group with history extending all the way back to Stephen Goodyear, a founding father of the New Haven colony in 1638, regarded their son’s financial ruin with disaffection. In the business world, Goodyear established a number of contacts, most of whom he met while begging for money to let him continue his research. While seen as a noble scientist, surely no one could give Goodyear credit for being a good businessman. At one point while in France building great pavilions entirely of rubber, Goodyear was seized by French authorities and thrown into a debtors’ prison for 16 days because he could not pay his bills (Reader’s Digest). This recurring theme through the life of Charles Goodyear severely impacted his reputation, particularly early in his life while he worked out the process for vulcanizing the rubber product. But even in his later life, when he owned a rubber-producing factory, there was still no reason to believe his product, or his process, was viable for mass production. Only after his death are his process and his product recognized for their potential to change human life.
Nearly one hundred, fifty years after Goodyear’s death, society now regards rubber as an indispensible good. Goodyear’s vision of a world with rubber in everything is partly true. The billion-dollar company that bears his name today, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, makes rubber tires that allow automobiles to travel thousands of miles across land. This is only one example of how rubber has changed human life. Charles Goodyear is becoming a more recognizable name through time. For instance, in 1976, he received recognition at the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which recognizes and honors creativity among inventors, for his contributions to society. In 1912, author George Iles writes on Goodyear in his seminal Leading American Inventors, granting him a familiar place among the greatest of American inventors (Iles 176-218).
Goodyear’s area of endeavor matters to society because of rubber’s potential for use in a broad variety of contexts and applications. In the mid-19th century when Goodyear set out to develop a better vulcanized rubber, the need for a new rubber was great, especially for some failing businesses. A business that Goodyear first worked with when he began his research into gum elastics was the Roxbury Rubber Company of Boston, which attempted to manufacture products from the gum. Goodyear’s experiments with rubber brought him to the Company, which, as Goodyear later found out, was financially struggling due to failures in their products (Peirce). The gum they used to make various things kept rotting before expiration; in response, they began investing more money into research, with cuts to production. Goodyear’s exposure to the financial problems of Roxbury Rubber Company probably influenced him to develop a better product to fill this space in the market. Thus, even in the 1830s, the potential benefits of rubber were well-recognized, at least by businesses along the East Coast.
In the modern day, of course, the benefits of rubber products are well-recognized by every producer of consumer products in the world. It is cheap, relatively easy to produce, easy to distribute, and has many applications. In 1958, Reader’s Digest wrote, “Today there is a cultivated rubber tree for every two human beings on earth”. In 2009, a little over fifty years later, the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company is a corporation with a $2.41 billion market capitalization and $2.63 billion in gross profit (Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.). These numbers are just for the manufacturing and sale of tires for a variety of vehicles. Other applications of rubbers in a number of different products manufactured and sold by countless companies around the world is vastly more significant. Although Charles Goodyear took no specific part in establishing the corporate environment in which rubber now takes place, his direct influence on the development of a financially sustainable and feasible vulcanization process set the stage for the mass production of these products to occur (Slack).
When examining a historical figure, especially one from relatively recent history, it is important to use primary sources to verify the accuracy of the abundant secondary sources. In the case of Charles Goodyear, however, there is not a significant amount of primary source documents available on the internet. Therefore, a reliance on many different secondary sources to construct a full and in-depth picture of his life is necessary. This analysis includes periodical articles, encyclopedia articles, the occasional letter written by Goodyear himself, textbook sections, and a section of a book written specifically about our subject (Iles’ Leading American Inventors). The most useful of these sources are those that contain the most information not only about Goodyear’s personal life but also about the scientific context of his research, and the content of his discoveries. Understanding the science gives the reader the ability to understand his personal life, and struggles, better.
Historical accuracy, of course, is the chief concern of any biographer. Thus, it is necessary to consult many different sources for information about Goodyear, and to ensure these sources are not in some way based off one another in terms of their own sources. In using a secondary source, one should make sure it cites primary sources and not just other secondary sources with equal credibility. Many of the sources consulted in this analysis did a satisfactory job separating the historical significance of Charles Goodyear from his current significance to modern society; these factors together hopefully led to a fair and accurate account of the historical figure.
Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Income Statement. Financial Report. Akron, OH: Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, 2009.
Goodyear, Charles. Gum-elastic and its varieties: with a detailed account of its applications and uses, and of the discovery of vulcanization. New Haven: Published for the Author, 1853.
Iles, George. Leading American Inventors. New York: Holt and Company, 1912.
Korman, Richard. The Goodyear Story: An Inventor’s Obsession and the Struggle for a Rubber Monopoly. 3rd. New York: Encounter Books, 2003.
Peirce, Bradford Kinney. Trials of an Inventor: Life and Discoveries of Charles Goodyear . Washington, D.C.: General Books LLC, 2010.
Reader’s Digest. “The Charles Goodyear Story.” Reader’s Digest January 1958.
Slack, Charles. Noble Obsession: Charles Goodyear, Thomas Hancock, and the Race to Unlock the Greatest Industrial Secret of the 19th Century. New York: Hyperion, 2003.
Young, R. J. and P. A. Lovell. Introduction to Polymers. 2nd. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2000.